Kelly Brownell, the portly former director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity and now-dean of Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, has spent over a decade trying to convince the scientific community and the public that foods are literally addictive like illegal drugs. The hypothesis is sketchy and unproven, with many researchers finding the case that certain foods “hijack the brain” extremely weak.
Now Brownell’s former student, Ashley Gearhardt, has taken up the mantle. She recently co-authored a study that purported to show that eight percent of women were food addicts based on their responses to a questionnaire (the Yale Food Addiction Scale or YFAS) that she co-developed with Brownell. The questionnaire isn’t terribly accurate as a predictor of real-world medical issues: As a George Mason Statistical Assessment Service article on the YFAS found:
Obese and overweight people are more likely to suffer from “food addiction”, but underweight and normal weight people also meet the criteria. So the question really becomes: what significance or value does the “diagnosis” add to the discussion about helping people live healthier lives?
Ultimately, there’s more to food consumption behavior than the simple drug-like “addiction model” that Brownell and Gearhardt hope will lead to alcohol-control style regulations on food establishments. (Those regulations are the openly stated goal of the RAND Corporation’s Deborah Cohen; if her weak book sales are any guide, the public disagrees.) People enjoy food, they aren’t hooked on it. No questionnaire can overturn that common-sense view.